by ChrisTiana ObeySumner
On a grey and rainy Saturday, concerned citizens, high school students, and organizational representatives from organizations like CAIR and Thrive Washington huddled together at BlackZone, a community space set aside for the Central District’s historically black population along the Rainier Avenue corridor.
Hosted by Rainier Avenue Radio, and billed as the “Final Debate” between mayoral candidates Jenny Durkan and Cary Moon, the event’s backdrop epitomized the issues currently facing the CD. It’s one of the last few facades showing life in a dying economic hub; the Red Apple laying dark and vacant like a skeleton of times gone by – providing the bones for a new development by Vulcan Real Estate.
In the hour-long affair, topics ranging from homelessness, to immigration, and early childhood education were methodically asked by chosen community leaders. The conversation was not without tumult as a few outbursts and snubs slipped out from each candidate–ranging from collusion with corporations and the ability to self-pay for an election, to questioning support with grassroots social charges and marginalized communities.
The residents came with questions mostly deviated from what had previously been asked at other debates this election season. Instead of seeking clarity around the candidates’ intentions to address general social ills, each question implicitly seemed to ask: How are you going to represent me?
In a gentrifying neighborhood, and a cherished space only days away from demolition, the concern was palpable for how this area with its historic racial minority population–especially consisting of Black Americans–will be preserved or empowered upon election.
In one of the event’s most dramatic moments, moderator and RAR station manager Tony Benton decided he would ask the first “Wild Card Question.” He began, “There are a number of reasons why I ask this question…and I know there are a lot of people who will definitely identify with me when I ask this question.” Benton, a Black man large in stature, stood proudly in front of both candidates, looked them in the eyes, removed his knitted, tan dread cap, and asked pointedly, “When you look at me, what do you see?”
Jenny Durkan, going first, said that she saw “A man who looks tall…but I know most people see a Black man whose hair looks different from theirs, whose eyes look different from theirs, and make all kinds of assumptions based on that.” Durkan continued by stating “Implicit bias is just as powerful, of course if not more powerful, than explicit bias,” and vowed to combat institutional racism, informed by the anti-racist trainings she’s participated in, as well as personally “trying to work on” these issues “in [her] career.”
Cary Moon responded by saying she saw “A proud, strong Black man who is a force in his community, a father, an activist, a leader, someone who has been working in this community for decades to build a better future city.” Moon recognized the patterns of systemic racism throughout the city of Seattle. “We have had power in too few hands for too long, and I believe that the White people in charge has had a death grip on what cannot change in our city.” Moon assured she would seek to “work with communities of color to dismantle” these structures as Mayor.
Fifteen-Year-Old Seattle Academy student, fellow D.J. of “The Buzz” at Rainier Avenue Radio, and daughter of Benton, began her question by explaining how she has grown up in a diverse city. Because of gentrification, she is noticing dwindling levels of diversity in her neighborhood and social spaces.
She acknowledged that affordable housing development programs are usually the best course of action in these situations, but she does not see an end in sight. Pointedly, she asked the Mayoral candidates if the current conversation on “affordable housing is a cop-out almost for not finding the root causes and solutions for gentrification?” She requested the answer given would not be found on their website, or in any of their other circuits.
Moon affirmed this as “the heart of the matter” and “a central point of [her] platform” because Seattle is “becoming a playground for the wealthy…because we are refusing to confront a deeply unfair, deeply unequal economic system where all of the wealth is regenerating to the lucky few.” She conveyed an understanding of the connection between a lack of affordable housing and gentrification to be, “Systemic racism…widening wealth and equality, and…refusal to take control of the rental market and make it work for everyone” because “they are profiteering off of our pain.”
Durkan rebutted that she didn’t believe “affordable housing is a cop-out, but…something that comes after the fact that we did not do what was needed to stop it in the first place.” She declared that this city not only needs more affordable housing, but that it needs to focus on populations ranging “from low-income to middle class.” Durkan proposed the root of gentrification to be systemic racism, and that “in this city and in this state, we have failed on the promise of economic development for communities of color, and particularly for the African American Community.” She asserts that there needs to be “economic empowerment so people don’t have to have affordable housing, they can have any housing they want.”
The event ended with a presentation of a large banner hanging prominently on the main wall. The banner was an artistic roadmap, showing the various neighborhoods along Rainier Avenue. Benton explained that this will be taken to the various neighborhoods where residents will be asked what they would like to see the elected mayor address during their time in office. The banner will be presented to the Mayor-Elect upon inauguration.
ChrisTiana ObeySumner is an academic and ferociously passionate advocate for what is equitable and just in our society. They are an Alaskan-Born, Philly-Raised transplant who loves WWE, MUSE, and karaoke.